By 1859, Captain Trueshott had defended his wife’s honour so many times she invested in a pair of duelling pistols for this purpose. The days of the flintlock were ending, but as a weapon of choice for the habitual duellist, it was second to none. Agatha chose a pair of beautiful handmade weapons presented in a plush velvet-lined oak box. The 10-inch pistols fired large, heavy lead balls weighing half an ounce that travelled around 830 feet per second. They could therefore inflict severe wounds over the 30 paces between two adversaries. Despite a physician being in attendance at the occasions, the primitive medical facilities available meant that fatalities were inevitable within hours or days of a confrontation.
Gerald Trueshott’s second ensured the weapons were kept in pristine working order. The pistols were carefully and identically loaded so that each dualist was offered his choice of indistinguishable weapon. His pistols were crafted with a rifle bore to stabilise the flight of the bullet. Many enthusiasts considered this design to be unsporting as it improved accuracy. For some in the mid-eighteenth century, duelling with less accurate, smoothbore weapons were preferred as it was viewed as, “allowing the judgement of God to take a role in deciding the outcome of the encounter.” Gerald had wounded and killed fourteen contenders during his seven years of marriage so far, and he had a reputation for delivering justice as he saw fit.
Captain Trueshott wasn’t above the law and he was no stranger to receiving a summons. Proceedings were initiated against him by a dozen widows and their grieving relatives. He had appeared in court many times, but he had never come close to being indicted for murder. When Gerald’s family advocate, Thomas Turner, presented his client’s case he explained that both parties had freely entered the arrangement to “bring about closure to a private matter”. Neither party in the duel wanted to waste the court’s valuable time or draw undue attention to their disagreement. Gerald’s actions were always seen to be justified as crimes of passion and viewed as an attempt to satisfy his wife’s honour. His violent episodes went unpunished, and the latter cases were summarily dismissed as unfortunate moments to be disregarded.
The closest anybody got to charging Gerald was Hugh Ringfield, back in 1860. His brother Amos was spotted trying to catch Agatha Trueshott’s eye. He had certainly become obsessed with her whilst Gerald was away on military manoeuvres. Amos visited the Trueshott residence on eleven separate occasions in the space of six weeks to attend to the Trueshott farm’s waterworks. On the last occasion he was seen leaving as the early morning milk deliveries occurred.
Rumours about Amos’s movements reached Gerald on the front line, and his superior officer excused his active duty. Officially this absence was recorded as “compassionate leave”. Privately, the colonel reasoned that it was the best way to avoid any “unnecessary unpleasantness” on his watch.
True to form, Gerald dispensed with Amos Ringfield and confirmed his wife’s reputation as a woman of impeccable character. Hugh Ringfield was unhappy with the outcome and appealed to a higher court to seek some form of fair remedy. He claimed he had undeniable proof that Agatha was not an innocent party and he had prepared a solid case. Alas, he wasted both his time and much of his savings trying to pursue his cause. Justice Briggs deliberately took his time considering what Hugh had to say, however he dismissed the whole affair. He was particularly upset that Hugh, who had tried to represent himself in this matter, was so unfamiliar with the judicial process. On top of Hugh’s failure, the judge fined the poor drainage engineer for contempt and wasting the court’s time. Justice Briggs said he hoped that this would act as a stern warning for anyone else that sought to approach him without an advocate.
Hugh was shocked and perturbed at the disappointing result. To compound his misery, his wife left him when he revealed that he had remortgaged their property to pay the legal fees. Hugh rode all the way to Gerald’s field headquarters to reveal the truth about his brother’s affair. With nothing to lose, he confronted Gerald in person. The captain listened to the man’s story and was unconvinced that his wife was complicit in Amos’s infatuation. After Mr Ringfield had concluded his presentation, Gerald challenged Hugh directly with besmirching Agatha’s name. If Hugh didn’t accept the ultimatum, then the threat of ridicule would weigh heavily on him. Despite the fear that he could never best the captain, he took on the challenge.
The duel occurred later that afternoon. Colonel Fitzpatrick had sanctioned the contest, provided a pair of matching flintlocks, and allowed his medic to be present. The officers’ fashionable practice of demanding satisfaction wasn’t discouraged as yet, however it ended during the civil war years. Too many capable officers were being lost at the hands of their colleagues, and the custom threatened the success of the war effort.
The colonel saw no point in disrupting today’s spectacle. The threat of bloodshed drew furtive crowds of onlookers who saw the event as an opportunity to wager on the outcome. It became obvious that there was little sport to be enjoyed in this fixture. The captain was on top form and Hugh was a long way from home.
It was late afternoon when the two men shared the sun and aligned themselves perpendicular to its warm evening light. The pair stood back to back and after the signal was given, they strode in opposite directions. After turning to face one another, Hugh barely took aim or released his pistol’s mainspring before he crumbled to the ground. The matter was resolved in Gerald’s favour with a single shot.
The commanding officer discovered that his officers opened a book concerning the outcome of this latest duel. It transpires that they all won handsomely when they put their entire month’s wages on a double Ringfield fatality. Sizeable sums of money exchanged hands when the wretched Hugh went the way of his brother, Amos.
The colonel’s strategy had proved an amusing distraction for his men before he delivered the bad news. He had received a despatch that declared Fort Sumter had been attacked and surrendered to confederate forces. They would all leave for South Carolina in the morning. He considered it would be bad for Union army morale to discipline his trusted officers on the eve of war. He viewed the duel as a mere sideshow before the onslaught began in earnest. And so Captain Trueshott’s formidable reputation went before him without a blemish.
With the deaths of the Ringfield brothers, Agatha’s honour remained intact. It was April 1861, and the country was worried about the onset of unrest and national conflict. The looming crisis provided a convenient excuse for the women in the town to keep their husbands on a tight leash. The local gossips wouldn’t allow their menfolk to ply their trades on the farm anymore. Agatha struggled to use local carpenters and plumbers, and she had to hire tradesmen from the neighbouring counties. Nothing daunted Agatha, and she expanded her own set of technical skills. She rose to the challenge and managed both her 20 acres of arable land and the accompanying workforce on her farm.
She was a capable woman who was brought up in a farming community and could fix, make-do, and mend in her husband’s absence. She was good with mechanical farm tools, fixing broken ploughs and replacing metal wheel spokes. The farm workers looked up to Agatha and admired her tenacity and wondered how she coped so well. She never shied away from getting involved in the milking parlour or rolling up her sleeves at calving time.
In one respect she was unfulfilled. She had hoped to fall in love with the man of her dreams, manage a farm business and raise a family. Alas, Gerald never seemed to be home for long enough for this to happen in full order. She craved for stability and the happiness she deserved, and yet Agatha never publically complained or prevented her ambitious husband from accepting promotions. He was a professional soldier, respected by the men he led into battle and his entire peer group.
He accepted commission after commission, regardless of the effect on their relationship. His progress knew no bounds, but he wasn’t blind to his wife’s part in his glorious career. The townsfolk muttered about the lack of an heir and there were rumours about the time that the couple spent apart. They had been married for eight years and still no children. Why was he away so much? Was it a marriage of convenience?
From Gerald’s point of view, she was his cornerstone, and he trusted that the farm was safe in her hands. The crop yields were increasing annually, and he knew that their future investment was secured. He always gave her the benefit of the doubt when her honour was at stake and willingly put his life on the line to vindicate her.
Agatha never refused the opportunity to witness the duels in person. Wrapped in a hooded cowl to protect her self against the early morning chill, she ventured across misty fields and silently watched the awful events. After all, her husband was risking his life for her good name. Without question, she would drop the handkerchief that signalled the warring parties to advance, turn and fire at will. Agatha was stony-faced during the moments her husband took aim with her pistol and tightened his grip on the trigger. She always stared at the offending party as if certain of their demise, imminent or otherwise. Agatha was unmoved when the physician rushed to their aid to stem the flow of blood or declare them no longer alive. She lowered her eyes when the priest read the last rites and in turn closed their eyelids with his fingers. Agatha always clutched Gerald’s forearm as he escorted her from the carnage and returned her to their marital home.
The best men and the seconds who were present would retrieve the weapons for cleaning and provide the fees for the attending officials. Often, they’d retire to a nearby hostelry and discuss the morning’s work. They remarked on their observations and wondered why so many men lost their lives at the captain’s hand. Was Agatha’s vice like grip on their arm and that long walk to the estate house a sufficient reward to risk life and limb? Surely no man could replace the captain in her affection.
As the war progressed the full power of the Conscription Act came into force. The new law allowed for individuals subject to conscription to hire a substitute, so they could be exempt from service. This proved to be unpopular since it allowed for wealthy men to escape military duty while leaving men of lesser resources exposed to the draft.
Justice Briggs’ son, Ellis, could take advantage of this law and did so forthwith. It is said that the devilish young man also took advantage of Agatha most inappropriately. She was missing her captain when they encountered each other in town outside the general store. Agatha had purchased thirty sacks of milled grain for her cattle and was struggling to shift the load by herself. She had raised ten sacks onto her canvas covered storage wagon when Ellis spotted her. After his hot towel shave, he exited Tallboy’s Barbershop and crossed the busy street to offer her help. He declared his intention, removed his jacket and manhandled the twenty remaining sacks into the rear of the vehicle. Little was exchanged between the couple during the work, however their common interest came to light shortly afterwards.
He was a horseman himself and noticed that Agatha’s mare was favouring her nearside front hoof. With permission he examined the animal’s sole and removed a sharp thorn that was the causing some distress. Agatha was grateful for his help and asked him if he wouldn’t mind accompanying her to the farm. Her helpers had left for the frontline and she needed to feed her animals as soon as possible.
Ellis considered the request and provided reasons to prevent him assisting. Agatha was surprised by response and appealed to his better nature to reconsider. He supposed that he could rearrange his appointments and reluctantly dismissed his afternoon’s commitments. Ellis agreed to ride alongside the wagon on his father’s gaited stallion.
There were witnesses to the couple’s departure together, and it was rumoured Ellis was spotted returning two days later. The latter onlookers remarked that the young man appeared to be “very pleased with himself”as he trotted back into town.
News of recent events travelled quickly to South Carolina. Gerald made his excuses and returned from the frontline to settle matters. The usual arrangements were prepared, and the rules of engagement agreed in advance. He’d no time to waste speaking to the offending party. He was only interested in upholding Agatha’s virtue and returning to his posting.
On the morning of the duel the weather was overcast and a pale mist hung above the damp grass in the low-lying meadow. Agatha and Gerald’s second arrived carrying the box of pistols. Agatha turned the key in the lock, released the metal fastener and opened the lid herself. She turned to face her husband as the judge’s son removed the nearest weapon on offer.Agatha’s eyes were fixed on Gerald as he withdrew the remaining weapon from its padded nest.
The captain gauged the pistol’s weight in his right hand and faced away from his opponent. Gerald inhales and his right eye catches his wife’s gaze. Agatha is looking directly at him. He returns his attention to the matter in hand. She is motionless and impassive as ever.
The captain and the young man both present their weapons vertically in front of their foreheads and stare outwards. Ellis’s second confirms today’s rules: after the signal, both parties must advance the agreed distance before firing at will. Agatha raises her handkerchief to head height. The adversaries wait for the silk cloth to float to the ground. There is a light breeze that slows the descent, but when it lands, the principals stride forward over the rough ground. After fifteen paces they both stop and turn.
Gerald Trueshott’s final thoughts as he takes aim were to be his last. He feels the familiar jolt of the mainspring releasing the cocked hammer. He sees the flint accelerate towards the steel frizzen. The collision produces an orange spark that hovers briefly, like an ephemeral firefly. The mechanism grinds open the priming pan cover. The spark is wasted above the closed chamber. The pistol’s timing is wrong.
Gerald’s eyes flick left. Agatha is staring at him. He parts his lips to speak. He sees her eyelids blink shut. She lowers her head.
The thick white gunpowder smoke drifts away from the speechless group of onlookers, and it is evident that only one man has survived. The officials must complete their work before payment is made. Ellis stands aghast in the muddy field. Agatha turns with no remark and walks up the stony path towards the farmhouse. The judge’s son returns Agatha’s flintlock to his second and heads off home on horseback.
During 1861, the army replaced all its single shot hand weapons with reliable multi-round Colt 36 revolvers. The modern six-shooter had arrived and with it came the real possibility of immediate satisfaction.
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From the first line until the close, I thoroughly enjoyed it. My favorite line: "With the deaths of the Ringfield brothers, Agatha’s honour remained intact." Just perfect!
Thank you, Deidra. I appreciate your kind words. :)
A well-written, entertaining story, Howard. Even though I surmised the eventual outcome, it did not take anything away from the reading. Good tale.
Thank you, Roland. I appreciate your support and I’m glad that you enjoyed the yarn. I’ll be sure to look out for your stories in the future. Regards Howard